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Why America can't seem to fix its broken immigration system


The situation at the U.S. border won't get fixed any time soon. This afternoon, Senate Republicans blocked a bipartisan border package that was intended to decrease record numbers of illegal border crossings. This is the latest challenge, but the U.S. immigration system has not been working for decades. The last significant reform was 1986, and presidents and Congress have been trying to fix it and change it ever since.


So why can't America fix its immigration problem? That's one of the questions I put to Theresa Cardinal Brown. She's the Bipartisan Policy Center senior adviser for immigration and border policy. And she spent years working on immigration policy, including under two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. I asked her if she saw any similar challenges across administrations.

THERESA CARDINAL BROWN: Both President Bush and President Obama were trying to pass comprehensive immigration bills. And at that time, comprehensive immigration reform was widely understood to consist of three major components. One was reforms to the legal immigration system most often related to balancing between family-based immigration and employment-based immigration - temporary worker visas, what the caps and annual limits should be, legalization for the undocumented in the United States and then border security - which during those years, was really about how do we prevent and deter unlawful migration of Mexicans from Mexico 'cause that was the majority of what was happening at the border. Both presidents tried to do this on a bipartisan basis, and there were bipartisan efforts led - both times in the Senate, but in the House and the Senate - under both administrations.

At the end of the day, they weren't able to get those bills, you know, through the legislative process. And I think there were a couple of reasons for that. One of them is the bills were negotiated within a group of members. But when the bills came out, then it became a challenge if another member said, hey, wait a minute, I - what about this thing that I wanted? Or I object to this piece of it. And if any of those pieces in that really tightly negotiated bill were taken out - such as happened with the Kennedy-McCain efforts - then the total number of amount of support and votes for the bill collapsed. They were both committed to trying to do it on a bipartisan basis. I think what we have seen at different periods of time since then - under President Trump and in President Biden's first couple of years - is attempts to do it all with your own party.

SUMMERS: From your view, from a policy standpoint, why do you think it is so difficult - at least that we've seen so far - to craft legislation on the immigration issue that can be successful?

BROWN: I think it comes down to the fact that immigration is - immigration law, specifically, and policy - is extremely complex. There are very few members of Congress or staff on Capitol Hill that have a real strong, detailed understanding of the law, the policy and how it actually operates. You know, U.S. federal court judges have likened immigration law second only to tax law in its complexity.

And so I think that that creates two challenges. One, that when you're trying to craft legislation, if you don't have that deep knowledge, you don't necessarily know how to get to the outcome you're trying to get to in a way that's workable. You don't know how what you're trying to propose would interact with other parts of the law. And so without that knowledge or understanding, it's harder to do.

It also means that immigration as a system resists simple solutions. Even though politics, as you're probably aware, is full of simplistic statements about really complicated problems, simplistic statements don't actually mean that you can have simplistic solutions.

SUMMERS: We've been talking about these policies, and I want to ask you a question that kind of gets at the humanity here. The latest attempt to overhaul immigration policy, again, seems like it is not going to become reality. But what is the cost of the failure to pass reforms - first, for the people who are coming to the border?

BROWN: The system that we have in place at the border now was designed for a very, very different border than we have today. As I mentioned earlier, it was designed when 90-plus percent of all the people that were encountered trying to enter at the border were Mexicans, usually trying to sneak in, evade detection and look for work. Now, we have people coming from 100-plus countries around the world, the majority of whom are turning themselves in to border patrol to try to ask for asylum - many of whom don't know what that means. But that's what they understand. That's how they get protection and get into the country. And they're families, they're children in very vulnerable situations. And so our process that had asylum as this limited exception to - if you enter between the ports of entry, we're going to deport you - suddenly was overwhelmed with a number of people that our system could not manage. It just no longer suits what we're doing today, what we're seeing today.

SUMMERS: I mean, you study this. You have worked on this issue for so long. So I'd like to end by asking you, do you think that, right now, significant reform is in fact achievable?

BROWN: Well, I think it has to be. I mean, there's this debate going back and forth that we've seen about does the president have authority to do this on his own. Here's what I would tell you. President Obama, President Trump and President Biden have all tried to do this on their own, and none of them has succeeded at length over time. And the policies they have all tried to put in place have all been caught up in the courts, which means, if you ask me today who's responsible for making policy at the border, it's actually the courts. And the courts bounce back and forth between letting a policy continue or taking it down. And so we haven't had consistency, and that creates more chaos at the border. So I think at the end of the day, Congress has to take this up. As hard politically as it is, at some point, necessity and hopefully their own voters will say, hey, stop kicking the can down the road. Stop saying you can't do it. You need to do it because there's not really another option that's going to change anything.

SUMMERS: I guess I'm just curious, on a personal level, as someone who has invested so much time and so many years under various administrations working on this issue, what it feels like to watch it continue to hit an impasse again and again - and there seems to consistently be an inability to move forward in a substantive manner - what that feels like for you?

BROWN: So I have a standard line that I use when people ask me about this. I say, you can either be an optimist or a masochist, depending on what you want to call me for doing this for so long. I'm going to choose the former because I firmly believe that our country needs immigration. And we need a system that works, and it has to work for everybody. So, you know, I made a promise to myself a while ago that I wouldn't retire until I saw some change. My husband is now doubting that promise. But I just feel like we have to get it done. And if I can play a role in helping that come to fruition, as long as I can, I will keep trying.

SUMMERS: That's Theresa Cardinal Brown. She's the Bipartisan Policy Center senior adviser for immigration and border policy. Theresa, thank you.

BROWN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF A.V. HAMILTON & HIJINX SONG, "DOWN!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.